Species: Rock Bass (Ambloplites rupestris) Location: Buffalo, New York Date: July 18, 2018
People always look to be exceptional. They long for that place where they stick out, are the exception to the rule.
Alas, I’m no different. My first Rock Bass, pictured above, was obviously a Rock Bass. I caught it in a park-like slough of the Niagara River where it looked natural on one side and completely artificial on the other.
The fish were plentiful, and I saw schools of micros almost immediately. They were far from shore, and I struggled to reach them, so I reached for my smaller rod.
I propped the micro rod against a rock but dropped my other rod, fitted with a small worm-tipped jig. It fell into the water, with the jig dangling just a few feet off shore.
Before I could even pick it up, a small sunfish had pummeled my jig.
My lifer Rock Bass was that simple.
I took a few pictures of the fish, and the lighting, crystal-clear water, and pretty little fish made for a perfect photo shoot.
I switched to targeting micros after that.
Changing gears after the productive micro session, I went to a small pond. I was hoping for a Norther Pike or Northern Sunfish, but the creek flowing into the pond was full of everything but.
It wasn’t long before I caught something a little unique.
My first thought was Shadow Bass, a close relative of the Rock Bass, but it was out of range for the species. It looked nothing like the Rock Bass I’d caught hours before, and it was a sight to behold.
It could’ve been a Shadow Bass, but given the range and no physically observable differences, everyone on NANFA voted Rock Bass.
Like most other people, I wanted to be that one-off. That once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence, but Occam’s Razor told me that probably wasn’t the case.
Assuming the simplest solution is probably the right one (Occam’s Razor), this was probably a Rock Bass, but a small part of me still holds out that it was an out-of-range Shadow Bass.
Species: Freshwater Drum (Aplodinotus grunniens) Location: Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada Date: July 17, 2018
I’ve always been a little different.
I was blessed with some great individual friends, but I was never in a clique, nor was I the cool kid. I felt like I hit my stride just off of everyone around me, the flam to their downbeat.
Making friends was never a problem, but fitting into a group or a team was.
It’s not to say I didn’t like people, but I was bullied and alienated enough growing up that I learned not to need people.
Since I didn’t date much and liked clothes, everyone called me gay.
Since I didn’t drink or smoke or experiment with drugs, everyone called me the “straight arrow” said I was “too good” or just left me out of the conversation. It kept me out of trouble, but it also kept me further from the mainstream.
In fifth grade, after having played the recorder for a full year, I decided to join band. My first choice was to play flute, but after a week of mockery from my classmates, I opted for the drums instead.
It was this concession that (ironically) started a slow and painful process in which I would eventually learn to march to the beat of my own drum.
The Freshwater Drum is the only North American member of the Scieaenidae family found exclusively in freshwater. It is capable of fighting almost as hard as Redfish or Black Drum and grows to 50 pounds.
Yet, for some reason, people don’t like it. They leave it out of the conversations as a game fish. Leave it out of the conversations for hardest-fighting fish. Leave it out.
Little did I know that this fish was actively making the case to be my spirit animal…
While in Buffalo, New York for a conference, I opted to stay just across the river in Fort Erie, Ontario because it was markedly cheaper. I failed to account for the toll required every time you cross into Canada, but even still, the $65 CAD was a steal.
The only downside of Fort Erie is the poor layout which limits access anywhere but back across the Niagara River or north deeper into Canada.
Apart from a riverfront park that stretched on for miles, there was effectively nowhere to fish.
So when the conference ended, I resigned myself to just fish where I could: along the seawall.
I was hoping for a Golden Redhorse, Walleye, or a Northern Pike, but chose the classic Canadian Nightcrawler (because, well, Canada). I impaled the entire worm on an Owner No. 6 Mosquito Hook at the end of an 18-inch leader held down by a one-ounce slip sinker in the ripping current.
Blind fishing was the name of the game, and I played music on my phone to rock out as I slowly walked the seawall and peered into the clear waters reflecting the sunset.
As I peered into the water, my heart skipped a beat when I saw what appeared, at first glance, to be a school of large Common Carp feeding actively on the riverbed.
Though carp don’t normally take worms, I was optimistic, so I reeled up and drifted my bait into position ahead of the feeding fish.
My rod bounced rhythmically with a tap-tap-thump before I was into a solid fish.
The current made the fight even more impressive, and I was forced to jump the seawall and make my way to one of the small stone staircases spread out about 100 yards apart down the length of the structure.
It was impressive, I’m sure, as I vaulted the structure, pushing against each of the two walls with one flip-flop-wielding foot while holding my rod in one hand and bracing myself with the other.
Slowly, I made my way Prince of Persia style down to the water, where I made my first attempt at landing the fish without a net.
I gasped as I realized it wasn’t a carp — drumroll, please — but a drum. A Freshwater Drum! It was the last fish I was expecting, but I was stoked.
I landed it, took some pictures and let it go.
That night and every night for the remainder of the trip found me performing acrobatics I never tried in marching band as I tried again and again to beat the drum.
I’d say I did beat the drum. I landed more than dozen Freshwater Drum (called “Sheepshead” locally for some reason) from three to eight pounds, releasing all of them back into the mighty Niagara.
It was probably the most unexpected way for a fishing trip in Canada to turn out, but what can I say? This little drummer boy has always been a little different.
Species: Speckled Dace (Rhinichthys osculus) Location: Link River, Klamath Falls, OR Date: December 15, 2015
As of right now, this is one species. Likely, the Klamath Speckled Dace, Rhinichthys osculus klamathensis, will soon be classified as a separate species.
It, like a number of Oregon endemics, hasn’t seen a lot of attention in the past 100 years, so it’s been left alone by modern taxonomists, but that will soon change.
I caught Speckled Dace as a kid on the tiny egg hooks baited with worms we used to use in streams before the “Bait Ban” that effectively took away bait fishing in streams to protect native trout and sucker populations.
All in all, that was a good move, but it meant that a lot of time passed before I caught another dace.
I’d caught a lot of them, but once I had a good specimen in hand, I felt confident counting it as a species.
Interestingly enough, I’ve only caught Speckled Dace in the Klamath and Goose Lake Basins, so if and when they’re reclassified, I’ll have more species to hunt just hours away.
This is likely the most aggressive fish I’ve ever caught. I buy frozen shrimp as bait, allowing a few pieces at a time to slowly defrost in the water to achieve that perfect, almost-frozen-but-not-quite texture that best allows them to stay on a single hook.
Where I happened to be fishing in Pensacola, the shoreline was pockmarked with rocks ranging in size from peas to watermelons. When I plopped a few shrimp in the one- or two-inch-deep water at the edge of the shore, I waded past them and began fishing.
Every time I went back for more bait, I noticed tiny little monsters that could’ve been fish, eels, or some sort of Floridian parasite greedily attacking my bait. It was broad daylight, the water was shallow, and I was two feet from the shrimp, but that didn’t stop the little fishes as they made short work of bait after bait.
Since I had limited shrimp, and the bite was on fire, I was at first upset. I tried digging a little pool a few inches from the shoreline with a rock, filling it with water, and then putting the shrimp there.
That didn’t stop the little beasties, though, as they timed the wave action and used it to propel themselves across the moist, rocky group into the pool and devour the bait only to retreat once the bait was gone.
I was intrigued. This was long before I started microfishing, and the smallest hooks I had were my (roughly) No. 16 Bergie Worm Jr. 1/64-ounce jigs. This is a lot of hook for a three-inch fish, but it proved effective when I put a tiny piece of shrimp on it, and I promptly caught several.
Since I couldn’t notice any other types of gobies amassed there in the rocks, once I caught a few, the novelty wore off, and I was back to chasing larger prey.
Species: Creek Chub (Semotilus atromaculatus) Location: Globe Creek, Fountain Heights, TN Date: August 1, 2017
This might be the most “Species Hunter” post of my entire blog. After staying with my friend, Marcus Moss, in northern Alabama for a week of subprime bass fishing that culminated in a few gar and a lot of small bass, I headed to Nashville.
I spent one night there, taking in the Music City before moving my way towards Pensacola, the next intended stop on my roundabout return trip to Oregon. As a sidenote, Nashville is awesome. One of the first cities to receive Google Fiber and (at time of writing) the cheapest airport to fly into, it has a lot to offer. The food, music, street art, and general vibe (I know, I hate that word, too) were generally impressive. I look forward to returning someday soon.
But in all of the excitement, I forgot to fish.
Realizing I never fished in Nashville as I made my way south, I wondered if there was any way I could stop and catch a fish in Tennessee before I made it back to Alabama. I’d never caught one in this state, and there were countless new species to be had even if I hadn’t really identified myself as a “Species Hunter” just yet.
It felt like a longshot, but when I stopped for gas a few hours south of Nashville, I took note of the small, semi-stagnant creek I crossed en route to the gas station. After filling up, I crossed the access road, turned off onto a road that led to several houses and was dismayed to see fences blocking the access to the creek below.
I thought about giving up when I realized that I didn’t need to touch the water — just access it. I tried dipping my jig (not a euphemism) in the water some 20 feet below, but the little fish I could weren’t having it.
I had yet to discover microfishing and had no artificial baits. As my heart sank, and I went to put my rod away, a grasshopper flitted away from where it had sat, baking on the hot road moments before. I spent a minute trying to catch on one the road, and once I did, it paid off.
Tipping the jig with a writhing, mangled hopper proved the right incentive to get the cyprinids below to bite, and I landed my first Creek Chub. I didn’t love dropping it down almost 20 feet to the water because fish care is important to me even when dealing with “trash fish,” but it swam away fine.
Somewhat smugly, I tucked my ultralight back into the back of my car, closed the door, and hit the road again, one species richer.
Species: Estuarine Triplefin (Forsterygion nigripenne) Location: Kuaotunu River, Kuaotunu, Coromandel, New Zealand Date: February 25, 2014
Mystery is a genre I love to read but fail to write much of. Even investigative journalism is a reach for me, and I’ve spent five years as a journalist.
The investigative process of which coffee shop makes the best breakfast sandwich in Klamath Falls (it’s the Gathering Grounds Pesto English Muffin Sandwich with bacon and prosciutto, for the record) or something equally trivial pales in comparison to the latest Dean Koontz novel anyway, so sticking to what I know is out of the question if I want to be successful in the Mystery genre.
This mystery begins as all stories do, in a sleepy town you’ve probably never heard of with an everyman and his ordinary life.
The man, of course, was me.
The sleepy town was Kuaotunu, a coastal village in New Zealand’s Coromandel where tranquility and paradise are locked in an eternal struggle to determine which makes the better adjective for the subtitle under
“Kuaotunu” under the town’s quaint wooden sign.
A small river which bears the same name as the town itself wends lazily through the floodplain and into the Tasman Sea along grassy slopes so strangely manicured and unlike the coastline in most places that it invokes a surreality reminiscent of Super Mario’s Mushroom Kingdom.
A massive, gnarled tree with alien-looking branches stands watch over the mouth of the river. From it’s largest branch hangs a tire swing swaying like a pendulum in the waning light of the afternoon, inviting the small children frolicking around the area to sit and play.
Along one bank of the river, a campground complete with small cabins hugged the shore while further from the water, at the base of a small hillock, the town’s lone restaurant, Luke’s Kitchen, cast an unassuming shadow over the cars parked out front.
Luke’s Kitchen was, in fact, its name. My name is Luke, and while that small similarity was not lost on me, neither was the connection it drew to Gilmore Girls’ flagship diner, I’m ashamed to admit.
Incongruities of Mystery and Rom-Com aside, the diner served a wonderful Green Mussel Special that I gorged myself upon at least twice while spending time there before returning to the river to fish for any number of species found in its intertidal zone.
My target species was Longfin Eels, endemic to New Zealand, but I had no such luck. I managed half a dozen species and even hooked two species of eel (Shortfin and Australian Mottled) but never got my Longfin.
Since fishing for those eels was sightfishing, I noticed a lot. With my eyes intent and fixed on the water below, I noticed a lot of little fish darting around on the bottom. They looked like sculpins, so I figured I’d be able to catch a few with the tiny jigs I used Stateside.
My instincts were correct. The tiny fish barely longer than my finger devoured the small jig. I caught a lot of them in short order before trying to for something else.
Unfortunately, I had no idea what they were. Not that day, not that week, not when I left New Zealand.
I read countless papers, species lists, and forums. Nothing.
2014 came and went without an answer.
Years passed, and I revisited “Unknown New Zealand Species” again because in writing the story of each and every species I’ve caught, I knew “Unknown New Zealand Species” was fast-approaching, and I refused to have an unidentified species on my list.
Since it was neither a game fish nor a freshwater fish (New Zealand has a relatively short list of native freshwater fishes), it continued to elude me.
Then, on a whim, I decided to read an article about New Zealand’s Marine Reserves. It included a contact email for questions, and I decided to give it a try.
Within 48 hours, I got a reply:
Your fish is the Estuarine Triplefin, Forsterygion nigripenne. Note the three dorsal fins from which it gets its name (bullies only have 1 or 2). The triplefins are mostly a marine group but this species penetrates into estuaries and the lower reaches of rives that are a bit brackish.
I had an ID! After five years of searching, my #SpeciesQuest within a #SpeciesQuest had come to an end.
Crazily, in the research process, I actually found a bonus species. That’s the next story: a Sci-Fi tale about cloning gone wrong, how one fish became two.